‘Hoosier School Heist’ follows money in Indiana school politics

The mantra of investigative reporters everywhere is “follow the money.” And no one else follows the money in Indiana education politics as doggedly – some might say obsessively — as Doug Martin.

His new book, “Hoosier School Heist,” draws on campaign finance records, foundation tax documents and muckraking reporting to paint a picture of a big-money push to privatize Indiana education with an agenda of vouchers, charter schools and anti-teacher policies.

“School privatization diminishes teachers, parents, students and education to something one can sell and make money from, and it eliminates any quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Martin writes. “… Sadly, only a fundamental overhaul of American society is going to turn the school bus around, as it did in the years leading up to the New Deal, after the robber barons stole everything.”

HoosierSchoolHeistAs the title makes clear, this is advocacy journalism. Martin doesn’t make any pretense of being “fair and balanced,” whatever that means. He writes in a tone of sustained outrage, which may be a bit strong for some readers. He would no doubt say that, if we aren’t outraged, we aren’t paying attention.

Parts of his narrative are familiar: The role of the Mind Trust and Friedman Foundation in promoting school choice, the East Coast hedge-fund money funneled through the American Federation for Children and Hoosiers for Economic Growth to Republican politicians, the rise and fall of Tony Bennett. But Martin also assembles new or previously under-reported pieces of the puzzle, such as the Indiana activities of right-wing or anti-union forces like the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, the Education Action Group in Michigan, and Oregon chemical company founder John Bryan. The Gülen movement, with its close ties to Republican and Democratic politicians, has drawn scrutiny elsewhere but has mostly flown under the radar in Indiana, where it has three charter schools.

The book is at its best when Martin piles fact upon fact. And it is extensively sourced – the endnotes run for 37 pages of fine print, including URLs for online sources so you can check the sources and evaluate Martin’s take. (Disclosure: This blog is cited a few times, along with hundreds of other sources).

Martin has a Ph.D. in literature, has taught in universities and published a book of Walt Whitman criticism. He can turn a phrase, and he can bring out the drama in a right-vs.-wrong narrative. Now working as a behavioral aide at a Vigo County, Ind., public alternative school, he grew up near Terre Haute, which may explain a lot. Maybe it’s the legacy of Eugene V. Debs or the memory of coal-field union wars, but Western Indiana progressives say what they think. Martin’s give-‘em-hell approach reminds me of United Mine Workers members I met while writing about coal strikes 30 years ago.

It would be nice if “Hoosier School Heist” changed a few minds. That’s not likely. People who worry public schools are failing or who favor school choice probably won’t pick it up. If they do, they’re likely to take offense and toss it aside. Personally, I’ll draw my own conclusions about who is and who isn’t a crony capitalist or a corporate lapdog. And I’ll continue to assume people can have honest differences on policy while agreeing our schools should be designed to do what’s best for students.

But I’m glad I kept reading. I thought I knew this topic pretty well, but I learned a lot about how the pieces of Indiana’s education “reform” machine fit together.

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